Milwaukee Polonia, UW-Milwaukee

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries has launched an exciting (and enormous!) new digital collection — Milwaukee Polonia: The Roman Kwasniewski Photographs — now available for searching through Recollection Wisconsin. Roman Kwasniewski was a studio photographer in the Polish-American community on Milwaukee’s south side from 1907-1947. Using a unique rapid-capture system that we blogged about last year, UWM has digitized more than 30,000 images from Kwasniewski’s archives.

Display window at Kwasniewski's photography studio on Lincoln Avenue, Milwaukee. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Display window at Kwasniewski’s photography studio on Lincoln Avenue. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Milwaukee historian John Gurda’s introduction to the book Illuminating the Particular: Photographs of Milwaukee’s Polish South Side (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2003), republished on the Milwaukee Polonia website, captures how deeply Kwasniewski was rooted in his community:

Kwasniewski’s images are an exhaustive collection of the mundane, the celebratory, and the picturesque. If a new bridge opened or a new church was built, Kwasniewski was there. If a family wanted a permanent record of a backyard birthday party or a festive Christmas gathering, they called Kwasniewski. He was a fixture at grand openings and ground breakings, at pageants, plays, and parades. He captured masons at work, babies in carriages, corpses in caskets, foundry hands on the job, nuns in full habit, and soldiers going off to war. For literally thousands of families and organizations on the Polish South Side, Roman Kwasniewski was the photographer of choice for decades.

Group portrait of members of the Polish Women's Alliance in Kosciuszko Park, Milwaukee, 1923. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Group portrait of members of the Polish Women’s Alliance in Kosciuszko Park, Milwaukee, 1923. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

The Milwaukee Polonia website features several topic categories to help users navigate the immense collection. Each topic — for instance, the Maynard Electric Steel Casting Company (managed by Polish immigrant Sylvester J. Wabiszewski) or the Kosciuszko Reds baseball team — includes some basic historical information in the form of a short essay contributed by a UWM faculty member or graduate student along with a map that pinpoints the topic’s location.

Man working with steel castings inside Maynard Electric Steel Casting Company, 1929. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Man working with steel castings inside Maynard Electric Steel Casting Company, 1929. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Visitors to the digital collection are able to add comments and tags to each photograph. Library staff expect that this function will help them identify some of the many unknown people and places depicted. Users are already stepping up to share their personal and local knowledge, such as the names of the parents of the little girl in the portrait below.

Studio portrait of wedding flower girl Dorothy Fons ca. 1927. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Studio portrait of wedding flower girl Dorothy Fons ca. 1927. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

UWM also used Historypin to create another route into the collection. With Historypin, visitors can use a slider bar to fade in and out on historical images overlaid on top of Google street views — an instantaneous way to see how a location has changed over time. UWM’s Historypin tours, with themes including homes, churches, commercial buildings, and “Auto Wrecks of the Old South Side,” place Kwasniewski’s images in the context of the contemporary Milwaukee landscape.

Cars and bicycles on Mitchell Street. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Screen shot from Historypin showing cars, bicycles and pedestrians on Mitchell Street. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

The Milwaukee Polonia project was undertaken by a large team of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee staff, student workers, and faculty advisors and supported by numerous donors.


Explore Milwaukee Polonia: The Roman Kwasniewski Photographs.

Read more about this project on the UWM Libraries’ Digital Collections blog.

Discover all of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s digital collections.

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